UND, NDSU chapters of fraternity stop ‘pledging’
GRAND FORKS — After a string of deaths and lawsuits the past five years, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a national fraternity with chapters at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University, has ended a traditional initiation rite members have practiced for more than a half-century.
The deaths did not involve any chapters here, but they have had such a negative impact on SAE as a whole that, officials say, the organization will stop “pledging” new members.
Brandon Weghorst, a national spokesman for SAE, said pledging usually involved new members going through a process lasting weeks or months to familiarize themselves with the traditions of their fraternities.
“The former pledging process was to understand the creed and history, and yes, there are certain chapters that deviated from positive education by subjecting their pledges to menial tasks that really have nothing to do with being a fraternity man,” he said.
Curtis Stofferahn, SAE’s faculty adviser at UND, said Thursday that he fully supports the change.
“It’s going to make us live up to our motto,” he said. “Just because you’re an SAE doesn’t mean you’re a true gentlemen. It means if you’re a true gentleman, you can be an SAE.”
And, he noted, SAE had to make the change because its insurance company had threatened to stop coverage because the organization was too much of a liability.
“It’s been devastating,” he said.
“Deadliest U.S. fraternity” is how Bloomberg News described SAE in a story this month. Out of more than 60 people who have died at fraternity-related events since 2005, 10 have died at SAE-related events, which Bloomberg attributes to hazing.
“Those types of stereotypical activities are not endorsed and never have been endorsed by the national headquarters,” Weghorst said.
While SAE chapters at UND and NDSU have not been involved in any major controversy, a few incidents have caught the attention of the national organization.
UND’s chapter was suspended in fall 2010 for hazing and in spring 2012 for a fight by nonmembers at the chapter house. NDSU’s chapter was on probation in 2008-09 and 2012-13 for violating university alcohol rules.
In announcing its decision to SAE chapters, the national organization cited deaths and other incidents, its tarnished reputation as a result and its desire to “embrace change” to ensure future success.
It said chapters that treat new members as second-class citizens will be closed.
Some other fraternities, such as Sigma Phi Epsilon, have already done away with the pledging, and Weghorst said he hoped SAE would set a good example for those who still partake.
Equality for all
The change began March 9 at all 240 SAE chapters nationwide. When a student accepts a bid from his local SAE chapter, he will be known as a “collegiate member” just like established members instead of a “pledge.”
“The term ‘pledge’ has so many negative connotations both in the Greek-letter world and especially in today’s media,” Bradley Cohen, SAE’s national president, said in a video statement. “We no longer use this term and refer to all those joining our organization as ‘new members.’”
The pledging process, he said, had created “second-class citizens” within the fraternity.
Stofferahn said SAE only began practicing pledging after World War II, when returning veterans thought their own boot camp experience would help new fraternity members bond.
“It formed a strong bond, but it also formed antagonism,” he said.
Josh Fergel, president of NDSU’s SAE chapter, said it’s been a “culture shock.”
“It’s just a big change,” he said. “For instance, there was a time when people were afraid to let women vote, but now that’s way different.”
He agreed that pledging created a separate group of men within the fraternity, and the rule change has made a huge difference already.
“The main difference is a lot of the stigma that comes with the word ‘pledge,’ “ Fergel said. “Now I’ll look at them and be like ‘I initiated you guys, you’re part of the house.’ I really do kind of see them as active brothers.”
Nicholas Nelson, president of UND’s SAE chapter, declined to comment Thursday.
‘A better path’
With the change, new SAE members will no longer have a weeks-long initiation but just four days. They will use that time to complete an alcohol and safety awareness course as well as several other activities to learn about SAE’s mission and values before becoming a full-fledged member.
Weghorst said this is meant to elongate their education into a constant learning process throughout a member’s college career, as well as improve the recruitment process.
“Some chapters have gotten in the habit of handing out bids to a ton of people thinking they would be able to weed out the men who are worthy from the men who are not, and that’s a very flawed concept because that’s not what recruitment is,” he said.
Weghorst said the decision has received some criticism, but the response has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“This new program is not going to resolve all the issues that face our fraternity or Greek life in general, but it does get us on a better path,” he said.
Tu-Uyen Tran contributed to this report.